You know that moment when the preschool teacher waves you to the side and says, “Caleb pushed another child down on the playground today.” Or Ella hit, or Grant had a tantrum, or Allie used hurtful words, or Oscar threw a truck. Whatever it was, the feeling is the same — you get that pit in your stomach, yet, you also think to yourself that they are only two (or three or four or five etc.), they are still learning. You tell the teacher you will talk with your child about their behavior.
Or maybe your child is older and the situation was written in a note and sent home. The feeling is the same. You know you want to do something to help your child succeed — you want them to be happy, to make friends, and to be able to navigate this world and its messiness.
But how do you do that? If something happens right in front of you, then you can intervene. With younger children, you can go through the Three Steps of Positive Discipline. But sometimes, even when it happens right in front of you, your child is too emotional to truly process and to learn.
And when it happens at school and you aren’t there, it is even harder. You don’t know exactly what happened, they don’t remember well what happened, and if you are anything like me you end up giving them some vague lecture about which you know isn’t really effective and may even make you and your child feel worse.
On top of knowing how to intervene you also have to consider where these behaviors stem from. These “bad” behaviors aren’t really “bad,” rather they are your child’s immature attempts to manage big emotions and to deal with social disagreements. Children have to learn the rules of society and it’s a slow process.
Our goal as parents is to teach them how to deal with these complex emotions and social relationships — to change impulsive behavior into more thoughtful and prosocial behavior. These are the skills that they will use their whole life and which research shows predict success (1, 2). Vague lectures removed from the situation or in the middle of a highly emotional situation just won’t cut it. So, how do we teach our kids these important skills?
I think the best way to start teach prosocial and positive behaviors or to change an immature behavior is to make it concrete — show them a real-world example at a time when they are calm and talk through or playact through solutions.
A great book can make an emotion, a problem, or situation that is abstract to your child, concrete, real, and most importantly, solvable. There are several great book series out there that present common behaviors we see in kids in ways that are relatable and that offer alternative ways of managing their emotions or negotiating with friends.
The other reason behavior books are great is that they show children that this is the way we behave in general — this isn’t a problem just he or she has — and it isn’t a seemingly arbitrary rule of mom’s — it just is. It also treats changing behavior as a process of learning, not a process of traditional discipline — which can be a truly powerful and positive approach.
How to Use Books to Teach Children Positive Behaviors
Step One: Find a book that speaks directly to your child’s situation if they are young. For older kids, sometimes less obvious books or funny books work better. It depends on your child’s personality. I’ve listed links below to my favorite series and what ages they are appropriate for.
Read the book at a time your child is calm and receptive. Ask some open-ended questions, like (and adjust the complexity of the questions for older kids):
Have you ever felt like that?
Have you ever done that before?
What did this child do instead?
Could you do that instead too?
Read the book several times and answer your child’s questions. They may start to open up and tell you more. Maybe they had their feelings hurt somehow and that led to the situation. Reassure them while reinforcing the alternative ways to deal with their hurt feelings.
Step Two: A good second step for younger kids is to act out the scene after reading the book a few times. Get two dolls or stuffed animals and play pretend:
Let’s pretend Turtle grabs a toy away from Tiger.
How do you think Tiger feels?
Is he so mad he wants to hit Turtle? What can he do instead? (Here you can add in prompts as needed, referring back to the book as well.)
Tiger told Turtle he didn’t like that. Turtle will give the toy back to Tiger and ask to have a turn with the toy when Turtle is done.
It’s okay if the play acting gets silly and doesn’t always resolve the “right way.” It may be your child’s way of releasing stress related to the situation. Try to bring it back to the “correct” solution and reinforce it, “I can see you are being silly now, but I also see that you have learned! You know what to do if someone takes the toy you are playing with. You can remember the book we read.”
For older children, role-playing can still be helpful. The books I recommend in the 8 to 13-year-old category have resources in the back for games and exercises you can do together to practice these skills.
Step Three: When you see you child trying out these new behaviors, like using their words instead of hitting, reinforce the behavior.
Hey, you used your words! You remembered that is what they did in the book. That works well doens’t it? I bet you can remember to use your words next time you are mad too!
Or for an older child:
I see you did some breathing to help control your temper. Did that help? Feelings come and go, but we are in control of our reactions, that’s what we read and that’s what you did.
Here are the links to my favorite series for kids listed by age groups.